Natalie Tucker has been coaching softball at Concord High School since 1994. That puts her near the top of the list of longest-tenured coaches in Cabarrus County – those who have coached the same sport at the same school for consecutive years.
In her 16 years, the Spiders have made the state playoffs only twice before.
In Tucker's first season, Concord finished in a three-way tie for first place in the five-team South Piedmont Conference. And somewhere between 10 and 12 years ago, when softball was making the transition from slow-pitch to fast-pitch, every team made the state tournament.
That makes the 2009 season extra-special for Tucker and Concord. The Spiders ended their long postseason drought, playing their first playoff game in at least a decade. Concord, 13-12 overall, reached another milestone: its first winning season in probably 15 years.
For the past several years, Tucker said, she has considered giving up coaching. But, she said, there is always one player, a couple of players or a group of players to whom she feels loyal, and that draws her back.
Such was the case this year.
“I'm sure there were times when I've thought our teams were better than they ever produced on the field,” Tucker said. “There were other times I thought I wasn't cut out for this, that I couldn't get them where they should be.
“But we haven't had talent across the field, either. If I had a pitcher, I didn't have other players. Or if I had other players, I didn't have a pitcher. I never had the talent I had this year.”
Still, things didn't start smoothly. Concord lost its first three games, all in the conference, including a season-opening 8-7 defeat to Piedmont in which the Spiders had led 7-2.
In their fourth game, against nonconference Robinson, the Spiders grabbed a 4-2 victory, but more importantly, they gained confidence.
Playing in a conference with several solid teams, Concord finished 9-7 and tied for fifth place with Sun Valley, with whom it split two games in the regular season, including a 2-1 loss on the road. In a play-in game against Sun Valley at the neutral site of Porter Ridge, the Spiders won 3-0 to clinch their postseason berth.
Leading Concord this season were juniors Carlie Bodder and Casey Shue, sophomores Shannon Arthur and Jessie Batten, and freshmen Kristin Durant and Caitlin Steel.
A first baseman, Bodder led the team with a .481 batting average, followed by Arthur's .453. Both had on-base percentages better than .500.
For its first-round game, Concord visited East Rowan, the top seed from the North Piedmont 3A Conference, on May 19. The Spiders jumped on the Mustangs in the first when Steel scored an unearned run.
East Rowan scored three unearned runs over the first five innings, but Concord closed its deficit to one after Batten's sacrifice fly in the sixth plated Shue, who had doubled. The Mustangs extended their lead to the final 5-2 margin when they scored two on a home run in the sixth.
“No, we didn't win,” said Tucker. “But like I told them after the game, you're disappointed because you lost, and we're in a different position because the game could have gone either way. But they showed up. They played well and played like they deserved to be there, and that's what I wanted to get out of them.”
This year's team is one Tucker feels loyal to, which will be enough to bring her back for her 17th season. The 2010 team holds a lot of promise. This team didn't have any seniors.